John Bolton, target in alleged Iran assassination plot, urges U.S. to stop nuclear deal talks

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John Bolton urged the Biden administration to cease negotiations with Iran after a federal indictment revealed an alleged plot to assassinate the former Trump adviser. Bolton said others are also being targeted and called for the U.S. to work on removing the regime from power.

“I do think it’s important for people to understand that this plot, this effort to kill me ... and I’m certainly not alone in this, they’re after plenty of people, including average citizens, not just former government employees — that shows the real nature of the regime,” Bolton told Yahoo News in an interview Thursday.

On Wednesday the Justice Department unsealed charges against a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in what court documents describe as a brazen murder-for-hire plot to assassinate the former national security adviser to avenge the death of Iran top military general Qassem Soleimani. This comes after the Biden administration and Iranian officials recently concluded talks in Vienna to potentially revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal.

The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 under the Trump administration but is now trying to resuscitate the deal.

A flag with an image of senior Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani is displayed by Hezbollah soldiers in Lebanon during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of his killing
A flag with an image of senior Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani is displayed by Hezbollah soldiers in Lebanon during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of his killing. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

“I wouldn't restart the nuclear talks,” Bolton said. “To me, going back in the deal is a huge strategic mistake for the United States. So what I would do would be to terminate discussions. I don’t think you’re ever going to achieve peace and security in the Middle East as long as the current regime in Tehran is in power. So my policy would be removing the regime.”

He said this could be done by exploiting factions and rivalries inside the regime’s military and leadership.

“I think finding those potential dissident military officers in particular, and very carefully communicating with them to separate the regime at the very top is the way, with careful planning, I think you can bring it down,” he told Yahoo News. “It’s not going to happen overnight. ... It takes time. It’s hard. It’s very risky.”

The White House did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment on Bolton’s call for the U.S. to topple Iran’s regime.

Bolton said this is the only way forward and skewered the Biden administration for solely focusing on restoring the 2015 deal.

An FBI wanted poster of Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, of Tehran, Iran
An FBI wanted poster of Shahram Poursafi, also known as Mehdi Rezayi, of Tehran, Iran, who has been charged with plotting to murder John Bolton, the national security adviser to former President Donald Trump. (FBI/Handout via Reuters)

Bolton described the administration's efforts to revive the deal as “the holy grail for them,” and said it would take something “extraordinary” for the administration to stop their efforts.

“I know many of the people involved in this in the administration, they are pursuing this with a religious zeal,” Bolton said.

Yahoo News reported on Wednesday that an unnamed second target, referred to as a former senior high-ranking Trump administration official, is former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. A source close to Pompeo said the Justice Department contacted the former secretary of state last week to notify him of the plot and the charges.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani denied the allegations in a statement, calling them “fiction,” according to Israeli news outlet i24NEWS.

“The Islamic Republic warns against any action that targets Iranian citizens by resorting to ridiculous accusations,” Kanani said.

John Bolton, left, and Mike Pompeo
John Bolton, national security adviser, left, and Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, in 2018. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The plot against Bolton stems from the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, according to the indictment. In January 2020, the Trump administration conducted a drone strike that killed Soleimani while he was on a trip to Iraq. Since then, the regime in Tehran has threatened revenge against those it deems responsible and has made a series of threats and started legal proceedings against U.S. officials.

Bolton left the Trump White House prior to Soleimani’s death but his hawkish views on Iran and other past actions have been cited by Iran as reason for wanting him killed.

“What is remarkable about all the Iranian operations on U.S. soil so far is the relative simplicity and straightforwardness of their approach: literally seeking guns for hire," said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on Iran and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “What is even more remarkable is that none of these assassination threats and plots against former U.S. officials has been sufficient to get the Biden administration to even blink with respect to its quest to resurrect the JCPOA."

An intelligence report obtained by Yahoo News last month stated that the “Iranian regime is waging a multipronged campaign — including threats of lethal action, international legal maneuvering, and the issuance of Iranian arrest warrants and sanctions — against select U.S. officials to avenge the death of IRGC-QF Commander Soleimani in January 2020, raising the threat at home and abroad for those Iran views as responsible for the killing.”

IRGC-QF stands for Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, an elite division of Iran’s military.

According to the report, Tehran has “consistently identified former President Donald Trump, former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, and former CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie as among its priority targets for retribution” since January 2021.

John Bolton
Former national security adviser John Bolton speaking at Duke University in North Carolina, February 2020. (Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images)

Yahoo News previously reported that concerns about retaliatory attacks after Soleimani's death against officials involved in the strike against him prompted Congress to appropriate $15 million for security for departing Secretary of State Pompeo and others.

“I think in the White House, their brains are compartmentalized,” Bolton told Yahoo News Thursday. “Here, you have the nuclear problem here, you have the terrorist problem. They’re not compartmentalized in Iran. And unfortunately, Iran is the adversary that’s threatening us. So ... at a conceptual level in the White House, they can distinguish between the nuclear program and attacks on Americans on American soil. That’s not how they see it in Tehran.”

Four former officials being targeted by Iran told Yahoo News that they were dismayed by the Biden administration’s continued efforts to negotiate with a regime actively trying to assassinate them and other former U.S. officials. Two of these former officials told Yahoo News they supported the nuclear deal but urged the administration to put JCPOA talks on hold until Iran stops trying to kill officials on U.S. soil.

The nuclear deal is not a good deal but it’s better than nothing, said one former official who said he supported the Biden administration efforts to revive the 2015 agreement. But, this person said, talks should only resume if there are assurances Iran will stop trying to kill American officials on U.S. soil. This person requested anonymity out of concern for the security of family members.

Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, center
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, center, at a meeting with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran in 2016. (Office of Iranian Supreme Leader/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“The real concern for all of us is not what Iran is doing, it’s what the U.S. is not doing,” said Rob Greenway, former senior director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs of the National Security Council.

Greenway said there were steps that the White House should take immediately to respond to the threats against former officials. Greenway is one of the former U.S. officials sanctioned by Iran; Iran requested Interpol issue red alert notices on officials including Greenway, currently an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“I would extend protection for all government officials against whom there are active Iranian threats. Not all those threatened by Iran have government-provided personal security details,” Greenway said.

The White House did not respond to Yahoo News’ questions about providing security for additional officials.

He also said he would “recommend we cease active negotiations with Iran until compelling and verifiable assurances made publicly and privately to cease all efforts targeting U.S. citizens including former government officials.” Greenway told Yahoo News.

A White House spokesperson told Yahoo News that the Biden administration will continue to pursue JCPOA talks as long as he believes it’s in “U.S. national security interests.”

Joe Biden in Saudi Arabia
President Biden at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, following an Arab summit there, July 16, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

“President Biden has been clear that he will ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. He believes diplomacy is the best path to achieving that goal,” a spokesperson said. “At the same time, the Biden administration has not and will not waiver in protecting and defending all Americans against threats of violence and terrorism. We will continue to bring to bear the full resources of the U.S. government to protect Americans.”

When asked how he thinks the U.S. should be responding to the threats, Bolton reiterated his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, and said he doesn’t believe there’ll be peace and security in the Middle East as long as the current regime in Tehran is in power. Bolton called for the Biden administration to remove the regime from power, but demurred when asked if he’d tried to do this when he worked in the Trump administration.

“I think [the regime is] far more vulnerable than people think. I think there’s enormous dissatisfaction across the country. The government has the weapons — that’s the problem. The people don’t have the weapons. So it’s a difficult situation, but nobody should think this regime is rock solid. It definitely is not.

The plot described in court records shows the world what Iran is capable of, he said.

“It’s a look inside their soul. And it’s a confirmation [that] they can make a lot of commitments about their nuclear weapons program, [and] have no intention whatsoever of honoring them.”